Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Chestnut Tea with the Other Me

Marissa Skudlarek rebuts Peter Hsieh in a move we shall call, from this moment on, “The Double Skudlarek.”

The Palm Court of the Palace Hotel, downtown San Francisco. Marissa and Other Marissa sit at a table drinking tea. They are wearing beautiful floral-print sundresses and really fantastic hats.

MARISSA: So, Other Marissa. Thanks for joining me.

OTHER MARISSA: My pleasure!

MARISSA: It’s nice to be able to argue with myself out in the open.

OTHER MARISSA: Indeed, because as Tom Stoppard once said—

MARISSA & OTHER MARISSA (simultaneously): “I write plays because dialogue is the most respectable way of contradicting myself.”

MARISSA: Of course we would both know that quote.

OTHER MARISSA: Of course. After all, I’m you.

MARISSA: But, like, the other me.

OTHER MARISSA: Yeah. So, whatcha drinkin’?

MARISSA: Earl Grey – my usual. And yourself?

OTHER MARISSA: Chestnut tea!

MARISSA: Chestnut tea?

OTHER MARISSA: No really you have to try it, it’s amazing.

Marissa takes a sip of Other Marissa’s tea.

MARISSA: It’s good!

OTHER MARISSA: I know, right?

MARISSA: So this means that this is a scene with “two women having tea and talking.”

OTHER MARISSA: OH NO SOMEONE ALERT PETER HSIEH.

MARISSA: But that’s why I invited you here today, Other Marissa. If Peter can have drinks with his doppelganger, why can’t I?

OTHER MARISSA: Why not, indeed?

The_two_Marissas copy

MARISSA: I read Peter’s article on Monday and I thought he made some good points, but they got buried under a lot of, um, how to put this—

OTHER MARISSA: Macho posturing?

MARISSA: You don’t mince words, Other Marissa; I like that about you.

OTHER MARISSA: I do my best.

MARISSA: But, anyway, I liked what Peter had to say about producibility and how much we should – or shouldn’t – take it into account when writing.

OTHER MARISSA: Yeah, I feel like if you and I sat down with Peter and Other Peter, we’d all pretty much agree about that. It’s deadly to theater, as an art form, if every newbie playwright feels like the only thing she can write is short plays with small cast sizes and simple sets. Where’s the fun in that?

MARISSA: Although I’d probably interject that some constraints and limits can actually spur creativity. A blank page can be daunting, and you don’t always have to color outside the lines to make great art.

OTHER MARISSA: Also, Marissa, I’ve noticed that you strive for balance in your craftsmanship – a play of yours might contain one “unproducible” element, but not four or five.

MARISSA: You know me so well. Yes, I did that on purpose in my play Pleiades. I realized that it required a large cast, nine actors – and I wasn’t going to compromise on that. But I could make sure that the technical aspects of it were as simple as possible. There are only two sets, the costumes and lights don’t need to be complicated, there aren’t any crazy special effects… and I still told the story I wanted to tell.

OTHER MARISSA: That’s the play you’re producing this summer, right?

MARISSA: You are such a shill. But yes, I’m producing it this summer. It doesn’t have two women drinking tea, it has eight women drinking tea! And it’s fucking awesome.

OTHER MARISSA: And then a tennis ball bounces onstage and smashes into the tea service.

MARISSA: Yeah – I still don’t know how we’re going to stage that, night after night.

OTHER MARISSA: But didn’t you say that you “kept the technical aspects as simple as possible”…?

MARISSA: Anyway, the reason I keep harping on the “women drinking tea” phrase from Peter’s article is that, when I read it, it felt like a subtly gendered insult. Why women drinking tea? Why couldn’t he have said “people drinking tea”?

OTHER MARISSA: Or “bros drinking brews”! Those kinds of plays can be just as boring.

MARISSA: Right! But they never come in for the same criticism. Guys with beers are “cool”; women with tea are “boring.”

OTHER MARISSA: And that wasn’t the only weird gender issue at play in Peter’s article. For instance, he tried to start a dick-measuring contest with himself—

MARISSA: Which is not something I would ever do with you, Other Marissa—

OTHER MARISSA: —and not just because we don’t have dicks—

MARISSA: Or, how he has the “hot twins” walk into the cafe at the end of the scene – that is such a male fantasy…

OTHER MARISSA: Oh come on, everyone likes hot twins!

MARISSA: Do they?

OTHER MARISSA: Admit it, you wouldn’t mind if the Winklevoss twins walked in here right now.

MARISSA: Yes I would. The Winklevosses are doofuses.

OTHER MARISSA: Don’t you mean “the Winklevii are doofii”?

MARISSA: And then I worry that complaining about Peter’s article makes me seem like a humorless feminist scold.

OTHER MARISSA: I think that we are being rather humorous scolds.

MARISSA: I worry sometimes that I’m uptight and no fun. I worry that Other Peter’s drink of choice, the “Pink Panty Dropper,” is a date-rape reference, and then I worry that I’m being silly and overanalyzing things. I worry that my drinking Earl Grey tea is racist, colonialist, patriarchal, classist, and Anglophilic; and that I ought to be drinking fair-trade shade-grown coffee. I worry that the setting I’ve chosen for this imaginary conversation, the Palace Hotel, marks me as an inveterate elitist. I worry that at this very moment, buildings are burning and people are dying in the streets of Kiev and Caracas, while you and I drink tea and chat about art. I worry—

OTHER MARISSA: Marissa. Marissa. Calm down.

MARISSA: I’m sorry.

OTHER MARISSA: It’s OK.

MARISSA: I can get into these moods of spiraling anxiety—

OTHER MARISSA: I know. I know.

Pause. Marissa takes some deep breaths. Sips her tea.

MARISSA: If I prefer to write from a female perspective, or discuss women’s lives, or whatever—

OTHER MARISSA: —and maybe you do, and that’s fine—

MARISSA: –then why am I annoyed when Peter prefers to write from a masculine perspective? I mean, he’s entitled to write what he wants to write. He said it himself, and I agree.

OTHER MARISSA: Because there has never been an era in Western history that privileged female perspectives over male ones? Because you’re worried that other people, dudes particularly, will find Peter’s style more attractive than yours? Because you know how important it is, in this culture, to be perceived as cool, and you feel like you’ve never been cool?

MARISSA: Yeah, I feel like, if you’re a dude who says that plays about female things turn you off, people say “Oh, that’s fine, that’s understandable,” but if you’re a woman who admits that plays about dudely things turn you off, people are like “You should try to be more open-minded, flamethrowers are awesome!”

OTHER MARISSA: Aren’t they kind of awesome?

MARISSA: See? Proves my point.

OTHER MARISSA: Marissa, I’m going to tell you something I’ve never told anyone. I’m going to tell you the real reason I drink chestnut tea.

MARISSA: OK. Why are you drinking chestnut tea?

OTHER MARISSA: Because great writing requires you to write both from your chest and from your nuts. OK, so the stereotype is that female writers are tender-hearted, compassionate, their pillowy breasts overflowing with the milk of human kindness. And male writers are bold, ballsy, Bukowskian bad boys. But truly great writing will combine those two modes. It will be compassionate but not cloying; courageous but not callous. It will speak truth to power, but it will do so from a place of empathy.

MARISSA: That was… really beautiful, Other Marissa. But I think you forgot something. A good writer doesn’t just need a big chest and big nuts. She also needs a gimlet eye.

OTHER MARISSA: I think I know what that means.

MARISSA: You’re damn right you do.

Marissa and Other Marissa get up and walk from the Palm Court to the Pied Piper Bar. Marissa catches the bartender’s eye.

MARISSA: A gin gimlet, please.

OTHER MARISSA: Make that two.

End of play.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. There aren’t actually two of her, but if there were, she could get a lot more stuff done. For more, visit marissabidilla.blogspot.com or Twitter @MarissaSkud.

Hi-Ho, The Glamorous Life: You’re Doing It Wrong, You’re Doing It Wrong

Marissa Skudlarek brings us Part II of her article about the internet and its discontents.

In my last column, I wrote about the anxiety that “the endless stream of information on Twitter, Facebook, and the Internet in general” makes me feel. In this column, I want to focus on one particularly prevalent form of Internet writing, which I have come to think of as the “You’re Doing It Wrong” essay.

According to KnowYourMeme.com, “You’re Doing It Wrong” became a catchphrase circa 2007-2008, and has remained popular ever since. It was originally just a fun, slightly snarky photo-meme (“Running: You’re Doing It Wrong” above a photo of Italian race-walkers; “Governing: You’re Doing It Wrong” above a photo of George W. Bush), but it has become the guiding principle of a slew of online writings. The Internet is crawling with self-styled experts who just love to tell you what’s the matter with the pop culture you’re consuming and the sociocultural habits you’re unconsciously falling into.

That’s right: if my previous column was a 600-word piece freaking out about the sheer amount of stuff published online each day, this column is about how writers of You’re Doing It Wrong columns are, indeed, doing it wrong. I get the irony, OK?

Because condemnation and hyperbole generate more pageviews than praise or subtlety, a You’re Doing It Wrong essay frames its thesis as contentiously as possible – and thus goes viral. More reasonable voices, which point out nuances, or observe without condemning, get drowned out by louder, shriller voices. In this overheated Internet climate, it feels refreshing to read celebrations of people who are Doing It Right, rather than criticisms of people who are Doing It Wrong. Consider this a public plea to my editor, Stuart Bousel, to publish his crowd-sourced list of male playwrights who write good roles for women.

Of course, even if you do write a paean to someone you think is Doing It Right, be prepared for the backlash: someone will come along the next day and write a piece about how that person is Doing It Wrong after all. If Stuart publishes the list of male playwrights who write good female characters, I fully expect that it will generate a lively debate in the comments section. I also expect that someone will write a response saying that we shouldn’t celebrate male playwrights who write good female roles, because that simply reinforces the patriarchal structure of society, keeps women out of the spotlight, etc. It feels like we’re getting to the point where you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t; where no matter what choice you make, someone will tell you that it exemplifies everything that’s wrong with modern society.

I keep bringing up gender because it’s something I think about a lot and feel qualified to discuss. But, in addition, our culture’s overwhelming anxiety about feminism and gender roles means that many You’re Doing It Wrong pieces are targeted toward women. There was another meme going around Twitter yesterday – the #EdgyHeadlines hashtag, which generated humor and social commentary by flipping the gender of magazine-type headlines. I recall examples like “Men, Do You Dress Too Provocatively at Work?” and “Do Male CEOs Spend Too Little Time With their Babies?” Of course, the point of #EdgyHeadlines is that we never actually see headlines like these. It’s women who get told they dress wrong for the office, women who are told to fret about work-life balance. Women bear the brunt of You’re Doing It Wrong attacks, and suffer the most anxiety from them.

I’ve witnessed this happening in our own community. A couple of months ago, local theater director/producer Melissa Hillman wrote a “You’re Doing it Wrong” blog post directed at young female playwrights, whom she claims are writing too many passive protagonists and focusing too much on heterosexual romantic relationships. Her stated intent was to encourage women to “own” their own stories and thereby write better, stronger plays. But I spoke to several women who said that this essay gave them anxiety and made them want to throw in the towel, instead of making them want to write more and better.

Full disclosure: I’m pretty sure that my play Pleiades is one of the plays that prompted Hillman to write her blog post. I’d submitted Pleiades to Impact Theatre last year, and received a kind but firm rejection from Hillman only a few days before she published her piece. And I’d always thought of Pleiades as a play that might be too feminist for mainstream American theaters – it has eight roles for women, after all – yet, evidently, it wasn’t feminist enough for Hillman. This made me feel a little bit trapped and discouraged, rather than empowered. I know very well that you can’t please everybody, but read enough “You’re Doing It Wrong” essays and you’ll start to feel like you can never please anybody.

At the same time, though, I felt kind of flattered that Hillman might’ve been thinking of one of my plays as she wrote her blog post. If so, it’s the first time anyone has written about my work in a serious, critical way, and it did prompt me to think harder about what messages I’m sending in the plays that I write. These days (to paraphrase Oscar Wilde), perhaps the only thing worse than being criticized is not being criticized. The Internet is an endless cycle of creation, reaction, backlash, and outrage. It can make your head dizzy — but don’t you want to go for a spin?

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. So, come on, then, have at her in the comments section. She also welcomes additional criticisms on her blog at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.